How political are political Facebook groups?

Another blog in my little mini-series, Social media for social change.The two previous were about the Twitter storm that hit Moltemyr skole and the social media/fundraising event Twestival.


Gondola by smcgee, Flickr, CC

We do know that people use Facebook for all kinds of activities, raising money to cancer sick children (started by the sister of a friend of mine), support candidate/president Barack Obama, or to campaign “Against Tony Blair being EU president”.

But does membership in a Facebook group actually reflect political opinions and engagement, or is it so easy to join that it doesn’t actually “counts”?

That is what a friend of mine, Anders-Waage Nilsen (who is also blogging, in Norwegian), is testing. He wants to see whether joining a Facebook group in support of a political initiative equals signing a petition according to Norwegian law. By creating the Facebook group “Borgerinitativ: Svevebane fra Bystasjonen til Haukeland”, he wants to test the municipality law § 39a, citizens’ initiative (my translation). According to this paragraph, “1.Citizens of the council or county can raise suggestion that concerns the council or the county’s activities. The city- or county council has the duty to consider a suggestion if at least 2 percent of the citizens supports the suggestion. Still, 300 signature on the council level and 500 signature on the county level will always be sufficient” (again, my translation).

Waage Nilsen has suggested there should be a aerial cableway or “express gondola” as he calls it, from Bystasjonen (in Bergen, Norway) to Haukeland.

So far, the group has 521 members, i.e. has long passed the goal of 300. I’m excited to hear more about how this initiative will be welcomed or dismissed in the local city council in Bergen. Jill/txt has also written about “Joining Facebook group as a political action”. She writes:

Rather than poo-pooing the presumed laziness of all those Facebook users who join groups to fight for their causes, perhaps we should look at this as a perfectly valid and effective way of being politically active in today’s world. I’d love to see a study of this.

Carl Christian Grøndahl has already done studies on this. He wrote his master thesis on “New media’s influcence on political activities and participation” (pdf, Norwegian). I haven’t had time to read it yet, but will try later this week (I’m travelling, and that’s when I get most reading done:-).

bilde-2304In Denmark, a guy called Anders Colding-Jørgensen (internetpsykologist with a special focus on social media and viral marketing) has taken this kind of experiment even further. He started a Facebook group about a fake problem, called “No to the tear-down of Storkspringvandet” (my translation) in Copenhagen. No tear-down was planned, but Colding-Jørgensen wanted to test whether he was able to grow and spread the group. Shortly after it was established, the group had more than 27  000 members! You can read his blog post about the experiment (in Danish) here, where he apologises if people feel offended by the experiment. The group has now changed name and is  called “I also ♥ Storkspringvandet in Copenhagen“… (I read the story first at Harddisken).

On my search on Facebook, I came across this group that might be interesting or extremely provocative for Norwegians (reminder, Norway is not an EU member)  – “European Union – for those who are European Union (EU) citizens (or wish they were …)”

One of the members of the group, a Norwegian girl, has written this question on the wall:

doing a dissertation on norway and the eu, if someone’s got a (educated..) view on the future between the 2, please share:)
Guess what, no one has even tried to answer her (in public at least)!

6 thoughts on “How political are political Facebook groups?

  1. Hmmm. I’m rather sceptical about this. I think you need something more than joining a group in FB… For the atheist bus campaign we have more than 23000 in the FB group, had 9000+ individual donors, and more than 2000 followers on Twitter. The latter – the Twitter followers – were really the active ones.

    The problem with FB groups is that you have to visit them all the time to keep an eye on the discussion – there is no decent mail function from the forum boards, and no way to monitor things à la Tweetdeck. So it’s no surprise to me that questions posed in the forums there are ignored.

    I think a better gauge would be to get people to subscribe to a Svevebane ’cause’ in Facebook.

  2. John: You´re definetly right. Facebookgroups are hard to maintain active. Bente has also a good point in asking whether they are reckoned as an opinion that actually counts or not.
    However, i think the argument “its to easy to just join a group, we cant take any notice of it” is to weak. No matter how quick and easy, it is a conscious action and expression. Further, its far from the only part of an political debate – and at the end of the line it will be the sum of things that will decide the outcome of any issue. Good arguments, proper support, the right network and ability to maintain attention from mass media as well as the politicians. The ones knowing how to make these connections, as well as gather the best arguments will have the best chance to succeed with their efforts to influence the community, politics, their place of work and so forth.

    For more on facebook groups in particular I wrote a thing on it (in Norwegian) here; Suksessfaktorer for facebookgrupper.

    And Bente: Thanx for the link. 😀

  3. Thanks for interesting comments, Jon and Carl Christian. I agree that the commitment you make when you join a group on Facebook is not very big. If you look at Edelman’s ladder of political support (page 5), joining a Facebook group would be the lowest level of engagement, or in the Obama example, friending Obama.

    But when should we or politicians (or companies/NGOs, for that sake) start paying attention to different kinds of ePetitions or political Facebook groups?

    What kind of functionality should they have to become legitimate?

    One of the most promising parts, in my opinion, of the Lisbon Treaty Ireland rejected, was the citizen initiative:
    “Citizens’ initiative: Under the Lisbon Treaty, the commission is obliged to consider any proposal signed by at least one million citizens from a number of member states.”

    If you technically could sign a proposal (or in fact, join a group) in Facebook, could the Lisbon Treaty’s citizen initiative take place on Facebook?

  4. i think it still is difficult to recon a facebookprofile as means of a legitimate registration for anything. in my opinion we still need online signature lists, in additoion to the facebook-group to accomplish things. You can use facebook to spread the word – and with propper groups and maintaince of them – its very efficient in doing so. But for the confirmation of support regarding the government we need something else. Maybe we should suggest the goverment(s) issues an app to make a government approved facebook-profile identity… 😉
    The election 2013 on facebook then…?

  5. another thing: Bente you worte “If you look at Edelman’s ladder of political support (page 5), joining a Facebook group would be the lowest level of engagement” (im sorry i haven’t read Edelman’s ladder – but im asking -how and why should we grade levels of engangement?
    I mean – doesn’t this really boil down to a childish “I’m more concerned than you (because i wrote someting while you just joined the group) som my voice counts more than yours!”? I don’t think it’s apropriate to grade opinions this way in a democracy. we have to accept the opinons of the public no matter how much or little considereation lies behind the expressed opinion.
    But of course, as I mentioned above, we can’t rule by facebook groups, neither are the profiles reconed as legitimate representations (yet) of the person behind. It’s just a part of the debate, and should be reconed as one of several indicators on an issue/debate. But the potential for development here is enormous – in that way, Waage Nilsens experiment whit the cable-car campaign in Bergen is very interesting and relevant.

  6. The ladder of support is all very well – just depends in what you want to *do* with these people. For the Bergen campaign if, for example, you needed activists for a ‘Yes’ campaign in a referendum you would only get 10% or so of the FB supporters to do this for you. But for the purpose of the petition I think it’s fine.

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